An intelligently constructed program, especially if it's based on a compelling concept, is almost as important to a recital album as the quality of the playing. Jenny Lin, one of the finest classical pianists in New York (and that's saying something), has a winning concept here. As Luca Sabbatini, the author of the program notes, writes, "small forms -- preludes, etudes, nocturnes, poems, character pieces, etc. -- often served their creators as a space which fairly encouraged aesthetic revolutions and other breaches of convention..." Listening to this mostly chronological program from beginning to end, one hears the piano's vocabulary expand radically over the space of 17 years.
Conventional Romantic harmony is exemplified by 1906 works of Anatol Liadov and Reinhold Gliere. The short-lived (26), unjustly obscure Alexei Stanchinsky is well-represented here by seven pieces, often moody, slightly off-kilter in terms of harmonic rhythm and register, and finally moving into modality. The 5 Preludes fragiles, Op. 1 of Arthur Vincent Lourié suggest Chopin influenced by Debussy (Louria's later work became more daring).
Traditional harmony nearly dissolves at times in Alexander Scriabin's last completed works, his highly chromatic 5 Preludes, Op. 74, and the 5 Preludes (1919-1922) of Nikolai Roslavetz, influenced by Scriabin but quite innovative himself (those wanting to explore his music in greater depth should check out the Hyperion disc that Marc-André Hamelin devotes to his music [he transliterates the composer's name as Roslavets]). The rest of the disc samples other Scriabin-influenced composers. Anatoli Alexandrov is a bit more conservative, at least in his 4 Preludes, Op. 10; perhaps that's why these 1915-16 works are placed before the 1914 Scriabin pieces. Nikolai Obouhov, by far the most obscure composer on this disc but quite a find, is represented by his 7 Preludes (Prayers), mystical, meditative, and highly colorful works that often display a French spareness. Ivan Wyschnegradsky's 2 Preludes, Op. 2, have a monumentality of sound that belies their brevity. Samuel Feinberg was perhaps Scriabin's top acolyte, and a virtuoso pianist himself; his 4 Preludes, Op. 8, are a densely polyphonic expansion of Scriabin's late style.
Lin has a refulgent and refined tone, with absolute command of notes and dynamics, and she milks every bit of expression from these brief but usually intense works. Even the most technically challenging Scriabin, Feinberg, and Roslavetz pieces sound not like difficulties being hurdled, but rather profound music-making. The final ingredient is the recording quality, notoriously tricky when it comes to solo piano. Hunssler provides a nicely realistic front-row perspective with enough resonance to avoid the unpleasant dryness that plagues so many piano albums, but without blurring detail in the slightest. Lin's superb legato playing is thus perfectly displayed, and the more percussive moments never sound harsh.
This disc is a must-own for Russian specialists and pianophiles, but offers plenty of pleasures for more casual music-lovers as well. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based former editor of Creem Magazine and CDNow.com, editor of the acclaimed MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, and contributor to The Big Takeover, Early Music America, and many other hip periodicals. He is a buyer at Sound Fix, a hot new record store in Williamsburg.